Our text raises an interesting question. How far should we go in listening to others before we make a decision that nobody will approve of?
Here we are obviously not talking about going against a clear moral matter. This text does not endorse someone that plans to go against the explicit moral will of God. So, we are dealing with a fairly narrow scope.
The issue at hand is that Paul, on a number of occasions was warned not to go to Jerusalem, as the Jews were plotting to kill him, but he went nevertheless, and against an overwhelming opinion.
Following the text ….
1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.
Everywhere Paul goes the disciples are concerned about the fact that Paul is going to Jerusalem. When he was at Cenchrea, the port city nearest to Corinth, he had discovered a plot of the Jews to kill him as he was then on his way to Jerusalem (20:3). And he decided to foil their plot by taking another route - a very roundabout land journey north, through Thessalonica and Philippi and then across and down to Miletus, which is close to Ephesus. Here he and his travelling companions were hoping to find a ship to cross the Mediterranean sea towards Tyre and Caesarea, and eventually on to Jerusalem. In Acts 20 we saw that Paul had met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus, and after a tearful farewell, he sets his sights on Jerusalem. He says that he is “constrained by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem , not knowing what will happen to him there.” He says that the Holy Spirit testifies to him in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await him. He knew that he would probably not see the Ephesian elders again (20:22-25).
The journey takes Paul and his travelling companions to the island of Cos, and on to Rhodes and Patara. At Patara they would take a ship down to Phoenicia, more than 600 kilometres eastward across the Mediterranean sea, a sea journey of about 5 days. Syria controlled Phoenicia in the Roman period, and here they landed at the port of Tyre, a city well known in the Old Testament.
Paul and his companions spent seven days in Tyre. Here he does what he always does. He meets with the Christian church. There is the wonderful fact that wherever Paul went, he found a Christian community waiting to welcome him. One of the great privileges of belonging to the Church is the fact that no matter where we go we can find a church community. We have a worldwide family and friends. The same will happen at Ptolemais (21:7) and also in Caesarea (21:8). Paul’s heart beats for the church of Jesus. And you will notice that in Tyre and Caesarea, just as in Miletus there are many emotions involved.
Our key verse is found in v. 14. Everywhere people are saying that Paul is going against counsel to Jerusalem, and so they literally give him up to the will of God .
The disciples in Tyre ‘through the Spirit’ warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Everyone knew, and Paul knew (cf. 20:22,23) that He would suffer, if not be killed there. Clearly Paul was very valuable to all these disciples. It is understandable. They do not want him to die, and they do everything possible to stop him from going. The problem is with that little phrase ‘through the Spirit’. They were telling Paul not to go, ‘through the Spirit’. So then if what they are saying is genuinely of the Holy Spirit, is Paul now disobedient to the Holy Spirit by resisting their counsel? How do we understand this?
The answer is that they rightly discerned what the Holy Spirit was saying would happen if Paul should go to Jerusalem. But their conclusion was not of the Holy Spirit. John Stott says, “The warning was Divine, while the urging was human!” And so Paul went to the next destination… the port of Caesarea.
Caesarea (21: 7-12)
Caesarea some 100 kilometres further south was a seaport built by King Herod the Great and at this time it was also the provincial capital of Judea. Here we find a more intense repetition of what happened in Tyre (v. 12). A prophet named Agabus from Judea invokes a graphic warning upon Paul. We have heard of him before, in Acts 11. In the days when the apostle Peter was still the dominant figure he prophesied that there would a devastating famine throughout the then known world. This led to the fact that the church in Antioch sent relief aid to the brothers living in Judea (11: 27-30). There is no doubt that this was a proven a prophet of God, a man who spoke by the Spirit of God. Jewish prophets had a certain custom. When words were inadequate, they dramatized their message. There are many instances of this in the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah 20:3-4; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Jeremiah 27:2; Ezekiel 4:1-17 ; Ezekiel 5:1-4; 1 Kings 11:29-31. Agabus takes Paul's belt and binds his own hands and feet, and tells him : 'This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.' We know that this prophecy was fulfilled.
What is of significance is that Agabus’s prophecy was seen by the church community in Caesarea as a sign that Paul should not go to Jerusalem. It also seems that Luke and Paul’s other travelling companions include themselves in this opinion. (21:12)
Paul's interpretation and correct understanding of God's will ( 21:13-16)
14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, "Let the will of the Lord be done."
What is Paul's conclusion? He knows what will happen, but against all prevailing counsel he comes to the opposite conclusion. What are we to make of this? The most obvious answer is that which is provided for us in the text: 13 Then Paul answered, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus."
What is Paul’s motive? He is doing this for the name of the Lord Jesus. You will remember that Jesus faced the same objections from His team of disciples when He went to the vicinity of Jerusalem (e.g. John 11:16). And He, in accordance with prophecy (e.g. Isaiah 53) was killed in Jerusalem.
Paul was mastered by One. Therefore we can see that Paul did not fear what they feared. They feared losing Paul. He was valuable to them, and they could not think their lives without him, and so , in one sense there is a selfish motive involved here.
In Paul’s heart there is the motive of completing the work that the Lord Jesus had given Him to do. He was after all, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. As it is, we will learn that he will not die in Jerusalem, although he will be beaten and abused (21:32).
But the Lord Jesus has a lot more work to do for Paul before he takes him home, eventually we believe in Rome. And Paul will be a most useful servant, even though he will be in prison. Just think of the fact that we now have in hand some of Paul’s so called prison epistles — Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
I will close with a brief survey of Paul’s theology and thinking as a result of his not listening to his Christian brothers and sisters. I will restrict myself to portions of his letter to the Philippians:
1. Phil. 1:12-18 : There were some amongst the Imperial Guard who had heard the gospel! It was worth it just for that! The church at Tyre and Caesarea wanted Paul not to go, but God's will was deeper and profounder. God had more work to do for Paul – from prison, and that would never have happened unless Paul went to Jerusalem and unless he was arrested and sent to a jail in Rome. And what is more is that other Christians had become emboldened to speak the Word without fear because of Paul’s presence and testimony in this Roman prison.
2. Phil. 1:20-23: Remaining alive for the sake of simply remaining alive was no reason for Paul to stay away from Jerusalem. Paul’s motive was to honour Christ in his body, whether by life or death. I am afraid, that modern Christians make too much of life for life’s sake –to the point of being idolatrous about life. We desperately want to live as long as we can, because, I suspect we believe that this sad earth is our heaven. Few have this idea in their minds that they should die in the service of Christ. Few desire heaven and Christ more than this life. Paul would rather depart and be with Christ. There is a legitimate reason however why Paul wants to stay alive, and that is for the sake of those that still need his encouragement and the testimony of his Christlike example - see Phil. 1:24
3. Phil 2:1-11: Paul’s greatest reflection in his letter to the Philippians is found here in this text in which he thinks about the life and death of Christ. Christ went willingly to Jerusalem to offer himself up as a sacrifice for us and this humiliation which made no sense to the disciples nor to anyone at the time of His dying was vindicated when He was raised from the dead. Against all popular opinion God exalted Him! Aren’t you glad today that Christ obeyed God and not popular opinion, and not even His own fear in the Garden of Gethsemane?
Let that be sufficient for now. The point we are making is that God had greater plans for Paul than the churches everywhere where able to conceive or understand.
And so the big lesson of Acts 21:1-16 is not for you to have an excuse to be self- willed. Generally and overwhelmingly speaking it is important for all of us to listen to the counsel of our Christian brothers and sisters. The big lesson here is that Paul as an apostle knew himself to be in the hands of God. And in this specific mission he stands unique. It is not for you to go now to Jerusalem to figure out your future against the counsel of your brothers and sisters in the Lord.
The general principle is that you must always obey the clear call of the Lord Jesus Christ. And sometimes (and you better make sure that this is so!) it means going against popular opinion (Acts 4:19,20). And when you do that, for Christ’s sake, do not hold your Christian family’s differing opinion against them. And if it is God that is truly calling, and you perceive that your church does not understand then do not hold them ransom to your calling. Instead you go in the Lord's strength trusting Him alone. Be extremely careful however when you choose such a course.